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The wild path to becoming a zoo veterinarian

I don’t mean to brag, but working at the Zoo is really cool. Where else can you step outside your office and hear a lion roaring, smell a binturong scent-marking, or see a giant panda munching on bamboo? Like many professional fields, zoos are unique environments that require specialized skills, particular previous experience, and extensive training. There are many vocational specialties within the Zoo Atlanta team – from accounting and marketing to animal care and maintenance. Regardless of our departments, however, we recognize that every role contributes to our mission of saving wildlife and their habitats. 

Since we work in such an interesting field, it’s incredibly common for my teammates to be asked if the Zoo is hiring or what’s required to work here. There are many paths that can lead to a zoological career, and here I want to focus specifically on veterinary careers. As we look forward to the opening of the Rollins Animal Health Center in just a few short months (!!!), you’re likely to hear more from our amazing Veterinary Team than you have before. So, let’s learn more about what they do and how they got to where they are now. 

Zoo Atlanta is home to hundreds of animals representing about 200 different species of wildlife, and our Veterinary Team is dedicated to providing each animal with innovative, individualized care. Providing this exceptional care requires a team with diverse skill sets. Our Veterinary Team includes three Doctors of Veterinary Medicine (veterinarians or “vets”), four Veterinary Technicians (“Vet Techs”), and one Veterinary Services Keeper (as well as Animal Health Administrative Coordinator). 

Becoming a veterinarian requires extensive post-secondary (after high school) education. Some colleges have pre-veterinary undergraduate programs, but you can complete the coursework required for veterinary school within or alongside any major. Regardless of course content, it’s important to maintain a good GPA (grade point average) and engage in extracurricular activities such as joining clubs or obtaining volunteer or intern experience related to the field of veterinary medicine. Typically, it takes about four years of full-time attendance to complete an undergraduate program. 

After college comes veterinary school to obtain a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM, also called VMD) degree. This usually takes another four years of education. There are only 32 DVM programs accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and each one receives far more applications than they can accept. Many programs only accept less than 10% of applicants. If you’re considering veterinary school in the future, the AVMA and American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges websites have some incredibly useful resources to help you understand the process and strengthen your application. 

After veterinary school, there are training programs available to become board certified in zoological medicine (Diplomate of the American College of Zoological Medicine). These specialized residency programs can take an additional three to four years to complete after veterinary school. These programs train veterinarians in the field of zoological medicine, preparing them to qualify to take the board certification exam by the American College of Zoological Medicine and become board-certified in this specialty.  More and more zoos look for board certified veterinarians when hiring. 

Veterinary Technicians (“Vet Techs”) support veterinarians in administering medications and vaccinations, collecting samples, maintaining records, conducting procedures, and other efforts to manage animal health. They play an essential role in the medical care of our animals.  Becoming a Vet Tech also requires specialized training, but it is not quite as extensive. There are options for Associates Degrees, Bachelors Degrees, and technical certificates. Like DVM programs, Vet Tech programs must be accredited by the AVMA in order for graduates to become certified practitioners. 

Completing all of this education and training may seem daunting, but it leads to an incredibly rewarding career. I recently asked our Veterinary Team what they love about working with a zoological population. Some common themes in their responses were perpetual opportunities to learn, working with a variety of species, doing something different every day, and opportunities to contribute to conservation. We’ll be hearing more about the Zoo’s world-class Vet Team in the coming months. We hope you’ll follow along with us! 

Sarah Hamilton
Interpretive Engagement Specialist

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl